I sat on the basement floor of the courthouse reading through old death records. Outside the afternoon sun blasted the streets and sidewalks of the small Kentucky town. But down there it was cool and humid. Whitewashed stone walls glistened and streaked with dirty moisture. An air conditioner rattled in the only window, blocking out the sun. Light came from a single flickering fluorescent tube along the ceiling. It was so dim that pulsing dark shapes formed in the corner of the eye. I don’t reckon the linoleum floor had been mopped for a good long while.
The courthouse in Morganfield was a red brick pile built in 1872 to replace an older courthouse burned down by marauding Confederate troops at the end of the Civil War. It sat on the central block of the small downtown, surrounded by worn commercial buildings, their storefronts long since empty except for a few law offices, a diner, and a shop or two. The coal boom that once made this part of the State flush with cash collapsed decades ago. When the New Deal came to Union County, jobless miners were put to work building an addition to the courthouse, which doubled its size. All of the records–births, deaths, marriages, deeds, probates–were kept down in the basement. To get down there you had to go behind the clerk’s counter, open a trap door, and navigate a narrow iron spiral staircase.
Deaths in Union County were recorded in the order in which official notice came to the courthouse. Often the entries were not in the order of death. Now and then the coroner would hold an inquest if the death was violent or sudden or unexplained. Other times a person died in a remote corner of the county, and it took a day or two for the family to get word to Morganfield. In some cases, a body wouldn’t be found for weeks, especially if someone died while hunting or tending their still deep in the hickory oak forest or along some forgotten branch of Casey’s Creek.
Union County began recording deaths in 1852, written as entries in ledgers kept at the clerk’s office. Unfortunately, many records from the next three decades have been lost to fire, flood, and neglect. The only other records of death at the time were burial entries kept independently (and unevenly) by cemeteries and churches. In 1885, clerks began recording deaths in large, heavy books bound in red leather with gold lettering on the spines. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth of Kentucky instituted death certification in 1911, and for decades this dual state and county system prevailed in Union County. For each death, the county clerk filled out a state form, which he then sent to the Department of Health in Frankfort, duly recording the death in the big red book as his predecessors had done. After 1967, however, the county abandoned this dual system, opting to retain copies of the state form alone.
The big red books, then, entered into retirement, a closed record. For 80 years, these volumes had distilled and compressed pain and suffering in pre-printed lines of entry: name, age, race, date of birth, place of birth, parents, date of death, place of death, cause of death, name of informant, arrangements for burial. Reading through these lines unfolds an intimate story of infirmity and distress among families and neighbors in this hard and bitter place.
Emma Robinson, black, female, 60, Heart disease
Hue Parrish, white, male, 2 months, Chronic colitis
No name, white, male, Stillborn
Charlie Miller, colored, male, 36, Gunshot wound inflicted by city marshal
George Henry Drury, white, male, 16, Accidentally shot, died from shock
Grandma and Mary Frances were born a year apart, and both came down with diphtheria at the same time. Late one night, Mary Frances died, but my Grandma lived. The story of that fateful night goes something like this. In their suffering, both little girls were laid out on the same little bed in the back room of the two-room shack owned by the coal company. Concerned aunts and uncles gathered together in the front room to comfort Edna, the little girls’ mother. Well past midnight, a few of the uncles went to check on the girls, and found that one of them had died. They despaired of breaking the news to Edna. In that dark back room, the men mistook Mary Frances for Catherine, and told Edna that Catherine died. When she went in to see her dead child, Edna cried out “that’s not Catherine, that’s Mary Frances. Mary Frances died.”
In the morning they took Mary Frances out in a tiny coffin and buried her in an unmarked grave at St. Peter cemetery. And they recorded her death certificate at the Union County courthouse in Morganfield. Now I had to find it.
Pauline Henshaw, negro, female, 84, General paralysis
Infant Goodlett, colored, male, 5 months, Hereditary syphilis
Herman Williams, white, male, 21, Drowning
Amos J. Hagan, white, male, 5 months, Premature birth
Charles Thomley, white, male, 5, Accident (auto)
Yes, we were all Kentuckians once or twice removed. The people in these Union County record books, these recorded dead, they were my people: dirt poor coal miners and sharecroppers, scrabbling together a living in the fields and hills of Western Kentucky. Prayerful souls. Moonshiners. Lanky country folk with goiters and missing fingers and soot-stained lungs. My Grandma Catherine was born in Union County, near St. Peter church where she was baptized. Her father, Earl Raley worked the coalfields around Waverly and Uniontown. They lived there until the mines closed down and the family could no longer survive. By 1928, they’d up and moved to the city to find work. Seems like the whole countryside drained into Paducah, Owensboro, Evansville, even as far as St. Louis, anywhere people had a chance to eat, to get paid, to see another day.
First we tried the State. Kentucky began recording deaths in 1911, so the State Department of Health in Frankfort should have Mary Frances’s certificate. But for some reason, they didn’t. Either it was missing, or for one reason or another it never arrived. And because the family was destitute at the time, Mary Frances was buried in an unmarked grave; there was no way to find her in a cemetery, no tombstone with its etched remembrances. And in any case, the records of St. Peter had been destroyed in a fire decades ago. So in that summer of 1984, we made the 35-mile trip from Evansville, Indiana to Morganfield, Kentucky to find a death certificate.
Beatrice Cissell, black, 26, female, Tuberculosis
Thelma Louise Sprague, white, female, 2, Typhoid fever
Isaac Davis, white, male, 65, Gunshot wound homicide
Eula May Richards, colored, female, 2, Bronchial pneumonia
Raymon Cravenson, black, male, 19, Hemorrhage of the lung caused by tuberculosis
Grandma had a navy blue ’78 Chevy Impala that rode like a boat floating fore and aft on its struts. A wooden figure of St. Christopher graced the dashboard, and a rosary hung from the panoramic rear view mirror. Heading south on Highway 41, we left Evansville behind, with its strip malls and stalled factories and oceans of downtown parking lots. We crossed the bridge over the Ohio River from Indiana into Kentucky and entered a landscape of corn and soybean fields dotted with grain silos and bits of leftover forest. Windows down, the hot dusty Kentucky air whirled around us, carrying with it the smell of earth and pig shit and diesel from the 18-wheelers. We turned onto Highway 60, passing through small towns and over freight train crossings. As if by some cosmic jukebox magic, Porter Wagoner’s version of “Green, Green Grass of Home” played over the tinny AM radio as we entered Waverly, where grandma was born.
I took a break from death and rubbed my aching eyes, made raw and irritated by the plumes of dust coming off the pages. I blinked and looked around, taking in the rows upon rows of books along the rusting metal shelves. As I did so, my neck tingled, and I felt a shudder run up my spine. Grandma always said that feeling was caused by a goose walking over your grave, which puzzled me, because it seemed to defy the rules of time and space. I mean, what if I’m cremated when I die? How could a shudder be explained then? Would some decision in the future lead to a different past, where I never shuddered because I didn’t have a grave? Anyway, there was plenty of reason to feel uneasy in that dim and lonely basement without reference to space-time and Geese.
Grandma had taken “her paper” over to the diner to drink coffee and catch up on news, so I was alone, but that wasn’t the cause of my unease. I shuddered because of a sudden thought: maybe these were infected texts. All of the red bound volumes with all of their printed and scribbled words: perhaps they carried the diseases of the dead with them. Not just records of sickness and calamity, but viral repositories, specimens, biohazardous material. Did bits of diphtheria and cholera and scarlet fever still lurk between the pages–diseases that found ready purchase in the blood and tissue of the rural poor? Could I get sick just by rifling through the pages, churning up a toxic cloud of microbes? Might I walk out of the courthouse carrying an illness, a madness in me? Could the pain and misery of this place well up to claim me, pull me down into the archive? I was in that basement on a mission to find lost souls, but would mine be lost in the breach? My throat hurt.
James Marion Shockley, white, male, 5, Membranous croup
William Ames Teer, white, male, 1, Drank coal oil, strangled on same
Gertrude Johnson, black, female, 1, Eating corn, sucked grain down windpipe
Alice Thomas, negro, female, 20, Abscess and peritonitis caused by tuberculosis of the left ovary
Charles A. Robinson, white, male, 10, Bronchial asthma
Before moving on to the Morganfield courthouse, we drove around Waverly to see the sites of Grandma’s childhood. The Impala’s tires ground and popped along the gravel roads as we drove by places thick and resonant with memory: her grandparents’ farm, the small house where her Uncle Herman and Aunt Lula Mae raised 12 children, the intersection where her Uncle Berk was killed in an automobile accident, St. Vincent Church where her parents got married. We tried to find the house where she was born, where Mary Frances passed her soul to the universe, a shack in a row of shacks owned by the coal company. But its precise location was lost to her; she hadn’t seen it since 1958 when her father died and they brought his body down from Evansville for burial. In any case the house had probably long since been torn down and planted over with crops.
At St. Peter cemetery, we got out of the car and walked around the old tombstones sticking up through tall green grass. There were Grandma’s parents–her mother had only died ten years ago, so the granite stone had a fresh quality about it. We found her grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, childhood friends, a roll call of Union County surnames. Grandma talked about the time her sister died, or at least the stories she’d heard, since she was too young to recall anything. She thought Mary Frances was buried somewhere near her parents’ graves, but she couldn’t be sure. She said someday she’d buy a small tombstone for her, it only seemed proper, now that the family had a little money. Back then they were so utterly poor, the church paid for the burial. Somewhere in this green expanse lay the bones of Mary Frances, somewhere in this consecrated ground in this little silent corner of the world.
In 1943 she met and married my tall, dark, and handsome grandfather. They didn’t have a dime between them, but spent the next 70 years together. Grandma quit work and devoted herself to raising her two sons and volunteering with a long list of charities and social services. She was a boisterous church lady, a community-builder, a networker, a presence, a go-to person for raising money or helping out a sick neighbor or visiting a homebound church member or making a pot of stew for striking Teamsters. There were summer socials and Advent celebrations, Saints feasts and card clubs, Little League games and week-long vacations to the same cheap motel in Clearwater, Florida. Her children grew up, married, had their own children; her brother and sisters moved here and there, absorbed in their own lives, aging by and by. Through it all, Grandma never forgot Mary Frances.
One day, not long before our trip to Morganfield, Grandma and I were rummaging through a big box of old family photographs that she had me bring down from the attic. It was full of moldering albums with dry-rotted pages and fading images of hardscrabble people looking much older than their years. As we turned a page, there was a photograph of a little girl with a bowl haircut in a gingham dress, sitting on a woodpile with her hands folded in the aspect of prayer. Someone had hand-tinted it many years ago, and gave the little child a set of rosy cheeks that she likely didn’t have in life. “That’s me,” grandma said. And then she went quiet. She lifted her cat-eye glasses, squinted, stared into the eyes. “No, I lie. That’s Mary Frances.” And she cried.
Sue Hancock, colored, female, 55, Heart trouble
Gertrude Reed, negro, female, 25, Tuberculosis of lungs
Henry Smith Piland, white, male, 1, Malnutrition
Rachel Wallace, colored, female, 63, Abscess of liver
Anna Pearl Brummit, white, female, 6 months, Malnutrition
For some reason, that day in that basement under that impossibly dim light, I wrote down other deaths constellating around little Mary Frances. It was the last thing that I did before I climbed back up the spiral steps, thanked the clerks, and exited the courthouse into the scorching sun. In scribbling this list, I think I was looking for some meaning in her passage, some place to fit her story, some stream in which I could pour her remains like a tributary to the river of history. As if her life could only well up out of the stories of this backwoods place and its people. As if the other dead–loved and scorned, holy and graven–might sanctify her name with blessed memory.
And so I made a list. A list of how the poor died–black and white, old and young, male and female–a list of violence, sickness, occasionally natural causes. In any case, a list of the people who passed into the archive in Union County, Kentucky in 1921.
Mary Frances Raley, white, female, 2, Diphtheria
Wilbur Sloan, white, male, 19, No diagnosis made
Wash Holt, colored, male, 90, Arteriosclerosis
Benjamin McBride, white, male, 7, Accidental suffocation in underground playhouse
William (illegible last name), white, male, 83, Shot with gun in foot, died of gangrene
- Archive of Dying in Union County Kentucky in 1921 - January 8, 2020